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Page revised in June 2010.
Villa e Casino Medici sul Monte Pincio (Book 10) (Map B2) (Day 2) (View C5) (Rione Campo Marzio)
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This etching published by Giuseppe Vasi in 1761 is one of the last views of Villa Medici showing the casino and the gardens with almost all its original decoration of ancient statues and reliefs. In 1780 Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany, after having hosted his brother Emperor Joseph II of Austria in Villa Medici, decided to move to Florence most of the statues and the obelisk (see a page on this topic).
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Obelisk made of Egyptian granite; 2) Porticoes with statues; 3) Hanging gardens; 4) Granite and porphyry basins; 5) Gallery with statues. The small map shows also: 6) Villa Medici; 7) Entrance from Via di Porta Pinciana; 8) Site of the group of Niobe and her children; 9) Studiolo del Cardinale; 10) Pincio.
Most of the niches which housed busts and statues are empty and the two lions guarding the loggia are modern copies, but otherwise the elegant fašade designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati is intact.
Villa Medici is strictly associated with Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici who in 1576 bought the property from the Ricci family; the casino was enlarged and modified and Bartolomeo Ammannati, a Florentine sculptor and architect, designed a loggia, which is a very fine example of Serliana; Ammannati also decorated Palazzo di Fiorenza and Villa Giulia with other Serliana.
In 1584 Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici bought the entire collection of antiquities of Palazzo Valle.
In line with the prevailing approach of the time the reliefs were adapted to the needs of the decoration and they were "completed" with parts in stucco in order to reach the appropriate size to fit into the frames designed by Ammannati.
According to art historians and archaeologists many reliefs were part of the decoration of Ara Pietatis Augustae, an altar similar to Ara Pacis Augustae which was completed in 43 AD by Emperor Claudius and which was most likely located near the Tabularium. The large reliefs with garlands were part of Ara Pacis Augustae.
At the time of Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici the main access to the villa was located near Porta Pinciana; from the gate a long alley led the cardinal's guests to the decorated fašade of the casino; the rear fašade, which has a commanding view over Rome, was given a more severe appearance, although we know that the cardinal had plans to improve the access to it.
The gardens of Villa Medici were not as large as those of Villa d'Este, nor did they enjoy the same large supply of water which made that villa renowned for its fountains, however Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici managed to obtain a link with Acqua Felice, a new aqueduct built by Pope Sixtus V and to improve the supply of Acqua Vergine; a series of fountains were built in the gardens and Monte Parnaso, a small mound near the walls of Rome in the northern section of the property became known for its jeux d'eau.
A complex set of ancient statues found in Rome in 1583 and representing Niobe and her children was placed at the end of the long alley which started at the entrance in Via di Porta Pinciana; Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany was so fond of these statues that he arranged a special room at Galleria degli Uffizi for them.
The group of Niobe was replaced by a gigantic ancient statue donated by Pope Gregory XIII to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici; it was found near Palazzo del Quirinale and it portrayed a seated woman; it was restored in order to resemble Dea Roma, the deification of the City of Rome.
The main purpose of Villa Medici was to be the stage where Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici entertained his guests and in doing so pursued his objectives; the cardinal however also enjoyed spending long hours in a small study room built in a tower of the ancient walls and commanding a view over the countryside (today over an expansion of Villa Borghese). Notwithstanding his position in the Roman church, the cardinal did not choose religious subjects for the decoration of the room. He had a similarly decorated study room in his palace in town.
On October 17, 1587 Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and elder brother of Cardinal Ferdinando died suddenly together with his second wife; the couple had a male descendant, a boy of eleven, but the cardinal rushed to Florence and building upon the hostility of the Florentines towards the dead couple, he managed to succeed his brother. Two years later he renounced the cardinalate in order to marry and ensure the continuity of the Granduchy.
All activity at Villa Medici stopped; in the early XVIIth century Alessandro, another Medici cardinal resided in the villa, but he died in 1605, 26 days after having been elected Pope Leo XI.
Villa Medici became one of the many properties of the Medici in Rome, which greatly exceeded the needs of the family, whose relevance declined after the death of Ferdinando in 1609; without the direct involvement of a great personage, the casino, its collections and its gardens were not properly maintained, although they continued to attract the interest of all those who visited Rome.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail (FERD) of an inscription outside the study room.
Casts of the French Academy
In 1801 the Granduchy of Tuscany was replaced by the Kingdom of Etruria, a puppet state which was de facto subject to France and in 1804 Villa Medici became a French possession where the French Academy in Rome was relocated from a palace in Via del Corso. The move brought to Villa Medici the XVIIth century plaster casts of Colonna Traiana which were commissioned by King Louis XIV, the founder of the Academy.
Many great French artists have studied at Villa Medici or directed the Academy (you may wish to see the website of the Academy - external link).
Read Henry James's account of his visit to Villa Medici in 1873.
The best view of Ancient Rome was from the Janiculum, but when Giuseppe Vasi drew his 1765 Grand View of Rome from the Janiculum he had to modify the real view in order to show S. Pietro.
Villa Medici, while being too much to the north to provide a view over the whole of Rome, is perfect to fully enjoy the view over the great basilica and the other monuments of the Vatican.
In 1809 Rome was annexed to the French Empire; the new administration found that the citizens of Rome did not have a proper promenade publique, a public place where to leisurely walk, see and be seen by others; an ambitious project was developed to create a series of alleys from Porto di Ripetta to new gardens on the Pincio hill which overlooked Piazza del Popolo. As a matter of fact the ancient Romans called the hill Collis Hortulorum (Hill of the Gardens) owing to its many villas, one of which belonged to the Pincii family.
According to the project endorsed by Emperor Napoleon the name of the gardens should have been Jardins du grand CÚsar and the statue of Dea Roma at Villa Medici should have been placed at the centre of the terrace overlooking Rome. The project was completed only in 1834 and some of the planned references to Ancient Rome were played down, while those to Napoleon were cancelled, although, after the 1870 end of the Papal State, the terrace was dedicated to the emperor (see a page on the terraces of Rome).
Read Henry James's account of his visit to the Pincio in 1873.
Obelisco di Antinoo
In 1822 Pope Pius VII erected in the main alley of the gardens an obelisk found in 1570 outside Porta Maggiore and which for a long time was kept in the premises of Palazzo Barberini before being placed in Cortile della Pigna.
The obelisk was dedicated by Emperor Hadrian to his favourite Antinous, who drowned in the Nile; in the reliefs at the top of the obelisk Antinous and in one case Hadrian are shown offering gifts to Egyptian gods; the hieroglyphic inscription below was dictated by Hadrian and it ends with a prayer to the gods and goddesses "that Antinous may enjoy everlasting youth" (to see all the obelisks of Rome click here). In 2005 archaeologists identified a temple to Antinous at Villa Adriana and the obelisk is now believed to have been erected there and then relocated by Emperor Heliogabalus to his villa near Porta Maggiore.
The gardens were designed by Luigi Valadier, who turned a small existing building into a Neoclassic coffee-house.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 10: Casino di Villa Lodovisi presto Porta Pinciana
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Porta Pinciana
Next step in your tour of Rione Campo Marzio: Piazza di Spagna